By Oren Liebermann
WILMINGTON, Del. (CBS) -- The Audi Quattro was John Harvey's dream car, but the sporty coupe led the Wilmington native into a nightmare.
"I went through bureaucratic hell," says Harvey.
And it all happened because of a reissued license plate. Harvey's car got booted in front of his house for unpaid parking tickets, even though he had never gotten a ticket. He had to pay $435 for the tickets and the booting fee, even though all the tickets were from the license plate's previous owner.
"The system is broken all the way around," Harvey laments.
So began a four month mission to get his money back. He went to the City of Wilmington ("They basically tell you they can't help you and pay the boot fee."), the state DMV ("Contacting the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles is a fruitless effort."), and the booting company ("The booting company was less than helpful.").
Maybe he could have let it slide then and there, until the same thing happened to his fiancée in January. Five days after she got her Delaware license plate, she got booted for the previous owner's tickets. This time the tickets added up to $380.
"The City of Wilmington acknowledged that those tickets belonged to the prior owner of the plate."
3 On Your Side tried to find out how this could happen.
"The license plate was, for lack of a better term, it was dirty," says Wilmington Communications Director John Rago.
After hearing of Harvey's boot problems, Wilmington enforcement officers now check not only license plates, but also car make and model, and VIN number to make sure they are booting the right driver. On the ticket Harvey's fiancée got, all of those fields except license plate were left blank.
"We should have now the correct vehicle, the correct license plate, and the correct record," Rago says of the new procedures.
The city says the problem starts with the state DMV reissuing old license plates. After a driver turns in a tag, the DMV can reissue it after 12 months. But the DMV never checks with cities for outstanding parking tickets.
"I thought that the answer would come back that there would be some revision in the recycled plate process," Rago says.
But the DMV insists their system for reissuing license plates is fine, and has been since they put it into place in 1909.
"The tickets are not associated with the license plate," says DelDOT spokesman Mike Williams. "They're associated with the registered owner of the vehicle."
"But it's obviously causing a problem if you're seeing this issue where people are getting tickets on their car on that license plate because of some previous owner," said Eyewitness News reporter Oren Liebermann.
"It's not a problem to Delaware."
"You don't see it as a problem?"
"You don't think anything needs to be fixed?"
"There's nothing that we can fix."
And that leaves the booting company, New Jersey based Paylock, a company that offers its boot to cities like Wilmington to enforce outstanding parking tickets. Paylock spotted Harvey's car and his fiancée's car, and the city put on the boots.
"I can certainly understand their frustrations," says Paylock President Cory Marchasin. "There's not much that we can do over the phone other than help someone pay the ticket and get the boot off very quickly."
Marchasin says the original parking tickets on Harvey's fiancée's tag had incomplete information, lacking make and model, as well as VIN number. He says that led to the city booting the wrong car based on the license plate.
"We don't do adjudication, and we're not allowed to make those decisions," says Marchasin. "All we can do is efficiently and effectively help them to make payment when they're willing to do so and, of course, when it's actually their tickets."
Marchasin says the best way to avoid getting a license plate with a previous owner's tickets is to request a new plate with a used car. He warns drivers not to transfer the old plate over with the car. He also says drivers can call up their municipality to make sure there are no outstanding tickets as a way of double checking.
The City of Wilmington says that if you experience problems with a previous owner's tickets, call them immediately, and they promise to help sort out the issue.
The DMV does not track parking tickets, so they tell drivers to call their local municipality, not the state DMV.
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